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Wheatfield considers moratorium on ground-based solar panels

WHEATFIELD – The Town Board voted Monday to hold a public hearing on a proposed six-month moratorium on the installation of ground-placed solar panels in the town.

The town’s Energy Application Focus Group asked for time to update planning regulations in Wheatfield for solar panels.

Town Attorney Matthew E. Brooks said some farmers in the town have been approached by commercial energy companies that want to rent land for large solar farms, although he isn’t aware that anyone has made that deal yet. The town just passed a farmland protection law that may have some bearing on such developments.

There also have been cases of residents placing solar panels in their backyards and annoying their neighbors.

“The neighbors don’t like it because it’s unattractive, and there’s glare from these things,” Brooks said. There was an incident last summer where a resident on Ward Road wanted the right to erect an 8-foot fence to block the glare from his neighbor’s solar panel.

The rules being developed will limit where such panels may be located, either for individual homes or solar farms. During the six months, the focus group, aided by a consultant, will draft those regulations for action by the board.

The public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. May 16 in Town Hall, 2800 Church Road. But since Monday’s measure included a provision that the moratorium won’t apply to any project that already had begun by Monday, in effect it’s a seven-month moratorium, if the board passes it.

At present, the only reference to solar power installations in the town code is on a list of types of projects that require site plan review. There are no solar-specific rules, and Brooks said they’ve been regulated as accessory structures, as if they were sheds.

“Basically, we have no law. We have nothing on the books,” Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said. “We think that’s not really appropriate.”

The focus group recently was created as a subdivision of a volunteer task force that monitors implementation of the town’s comprehensive plan.

“Nothing in the motion stops you from putting solar on your roof,” Cliffe said. “These (regulations) are for large farms. We think we should have some rules in place.”

On another topic, the board approved a 30-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, for Vincent Properties, a subsidiary of DePaul Group of Rochester, for a 60-unit assisted living and memory care facility on Forest Parkway.

Councilman Gilbert G. Doucet called the result “a slap in the face” to the town’s five fire companies and voted no. Two weeks ago, he had demanded a $2,000 payment each year to each fire company, in addition to the $12,000-a-year payment that DePaul proposed, which was to go up by 2 percent each year.

The result of the talks was to make the payment $14,000 in the first year, with a 2 percent increase annually. Doucet said the resulting $400 for each fire company “is not even one month of supplies.”

Actually, there’s no guarantee the fire companies will get anything, because the use of the money is entirely discretionary for the Town Board. Michael A. Piette, DePaul’s attorney, said the money could be divided up between Niagara County and the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District, which have general property taxes. The town does not, but DePaul will have to pay its full special district taxes.

Piette said the organization is entitled to a 100 percent property tax exemption because it’s set up as a not-for-profit entity. “As a sign of good faith, we’re making this proposal,” he said.

“If we say no, we get nothing. If we say yes, we get half a million dollars (over 30 years),” Cliffe said. He voted yes along with Councilmen Randy W. Retzlaff and Larry L. Helwig; Councilman Arthur W. Gerbec was absent.

Retzlaff called DePaul “a so-called not-for-profit business” and said he would like to see a fee for its fire and ambulance services.